Ahead of his meeting with Hugo Viana, rising MMA star T. J. Dillashaw talks to Jack Walsh about the life of a fighter

T.J. Dillashaw is just a single fight away from being recognised among the top ten ranked bantamweights in the world, a fight the Team Alpha Male product will face on short notice against Hugo Viana on April 20th, which is set to be broadcast as part of UFC on Fox 7.

He is a part of the new generation of collegiate wrestlers now finding avenues of competition through MMA. “It was just a form of competing after wrestling,” he explained. “There’s no wrestling after you finish college unless you go to the Olympics… I’ve always tried to be the best at whatever I’m doing, so this really is just another outlet.”

Dillashaw’s coach in college was none other than Mark Munoz. Munoz is an MMA fighter himself, ranked number seven in the world for middleweights. He introduced Dillashaw to Urijah Faber, the number three ranked bantamweight in the world, who drafted him in to Team Alpha Male in Sacremento, giving Dillashaw the platform to become a finalist on The Ultimate Fighter 14 (TUF), under the tutelage of Michael Bisping.

Following his stint on the hit TV show, Dillashaw rattled off three straight wins. His latest win was by knockout against Issei Tamura at UFC 158. Of course, there is much more to a fight than just attacking the opponent, and Dillashaw played Tamura perfectly.

“He kind of set it up for me.” He explained. “You can’t always just know exactly how things are going to play out; I set it up earlier in the fight… He was circling to my left the entire time, circling away from my takedown and the power hand and right body kick.

“He really didn’t want to engage, and so I just wanted to let loose a strike and it just happened the way it happened with a left head kick… I sold it pretty well with some strikes and he tried to dip out of the way of a takedown signal and made a big mistake.”

He admits that taking fights on short notice has become a regular part of his short life as a fighter to date. “I’ve taken short notice fights my whole career. I did it before TUF; that’s just how it is when you’re starting out. TUF itself was all short notice, really. It was three fights in six weeks.

“I stay ready all the time, I have so many team mates that I have to train and keep them ready, so I’m always in shape and always ready to go. This is just another pay day for me, so the closer the better. As long as I’m healthy I’m prepared to stack these fights up back to back. We don’t get ready, we stay ready.”

This staying ready assumes keeping injury free, something that is becoming harder and harder within the sport, something the fans will have to get used to. “It’s something we’re always going to have to deal with. We are, after all, training to physically go into combat… I do feel we can control injuries to a point where we won’t have as many, but, no matter what, we will see it in this sport.”

A new addition to the team is former muay Thai world champion Duane Ludwig, who Dillashaw credits with creating a sense of order in a sometimes chaotic gym environment. He says that Ludwig demands that they prove that they are better than their opponent, encouraging them to “be creative, throw some good strikes and push the grind on this guy. He’s going to be overwhelmed. I’m going to finish this guy, I want to get paid; I want that bonus.”

Now that he’s knocking on the door of the top contender’s list, Dillashaw knows what’s required of him. “Keep winning, that’s rule number one and I can never forget that. I don’t think I’m too far away, but it all depends on who you beat and how.

“I always want jumps in competition, to be the best you have to constantly challenge yourself, and you have to do that by fighting the guys who are the top ten in the world. Whoever they want to throw at me and however, then that’s who I’m going to fight. My job isn’t to pick fights, it’s to fight.”

News of the demise of Olympic wrestling has spread quickly and painfully through the world of MMA, with athletes such as Dillashaw understanding the clinical benefits of the sport. “It’s such a pure form of competition. I believe a lot of underprivileged kids can use it to get them out of trouble and put them on a different path, and it’s very sad to see it be cut from the highest level of competition.”

With the now intertwining relationship of the sports, questions have arisen to how the effects of will ripple into MMA. Dillashaw is confident that “it may even bring more attention to our sport. A lot of wrestlers are going to look at that after college, just for the fact that there isn’t anything else to go to.

“Everyone will understand how important wrestling is for fighting, so it won’t go anywhere as our sport requires that people understand wrestling. MMA wrestling will be different than collegiate, freestyle and Greco-Roman, but it’s still going to be very important in the world of MMA.” T. J. Dillashaw hopes that he will be too.